Monday, April 23, 2012


This weekend we took a last-minute trip to Lyon, about 2 hours away by train.  I had been talking to a coworker on Friday who said that she often goes to Lyon just for shopping, because there's a large mall next to the train station.  We had no plans over the weekend, so why not?  I thought we'd do some clothes shopping (I haven't bought any clothes the entire time I've been here!) but we ended up just sightseeing.

It worked out well in general, the train was pretty convenient, the weather was rainy but not for the whole weekend.  The hotel wasn't that nice, but you can't have everything.  We ended up taking the bus to the old town area, where a medieval festival was taking place, with sword fighting, archery, cannons, etc.  Went to the main church, a museum of miniatures (hung out there quite a bit because it was raining outside), had dinner at a decent restaurant (Lyon is famous for its food).  People were quite friendly and helpful when we asked directions.

A couple notes - when we went to the train station on Sunday morning to store our baggage and catch the metro into town, I saw a group of 4 red-jacketed young people.  It must have been some kind of make-work program.  I didn't think very highly of it, they were doing very little useful work. They were apparently there to help travelers, just like they had in Amsterdam, though I think the program was run much better in Amsterdam.  Here they just chatted with one another, and formed into groups that didn't easily allow anyone to break in and ask questions.  I did end up getting some help from one of them who was quite friendly and wanted to practice her English. She led me to the ticket desk to pick up a map of town.  That's where I saw a total of 8 train personnel, hanging out and shooting the breeze with one another.  Why did they need 8 when there were no customers?  It's probably a union requirement.  I was thinking about all the train strikes they have in France.  Not the most efficient system!

We also saw the red-jacketed young people at the Roman amphitheater (great place for the kids to run around).  I asked one of them if he could tell me anything about the amphitheater, and he hemmed and hawed.  Finally I asked, "When was it built?"  And he didn't even know!  He said, "I always forget that".

Our dinner on Saturday was at a very nice restaurant.  The only problem was that...I ended up ordering a Lyon specialty, which turned out to be innards!  I absolutely couldn't eat it - I think you have to grow up eating that kind of thing.  I had asked what it was, and the waiter said, "It's from a pig".  Little did I think I'd be staring at a plate of pig intestines, all full of little tubes.  Yech.

Also Eric ordered tiramisu.  But instead of being the standard tiramisu with coffee, it was more like a vanilla pudding with raspberries in it.  Not a hint of coffee at all.

The upshot?  Overall quite positive, especially for something so last-minute. We'll probably go back to Lyon at some point, stay at a different hotel, and check out the restaurants online before choosing one.

Peter and I among the ruins

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Amsterdam - I could live here!

We got back from our 5 day trip to Amsterdam yesterday. I would have titled this blog post "I love Amsterdam", but I already used that theme for Fribourg. But I really did love Amsterdam.

To elaborate a bit on the bike thing - biking is extremely popular here, probably more so than anywhere in the world. It seems like all major and minor roads have bike lanes, and not just dinky little bike lanes that are basically just bicycles painted on the side of the street, but real, separated bike paths. You not only need to watch for cars when you cross the road, you need to watch for bikes. It can be a little disconcerting.  The bikes are most often these huge heavy looking one speed black clunkers, frequently rusty. I was told it's because of the problem of theft. Also, gears are not as necessary because there's no hills at all.

I don't think I saw even one person wearing a helmet. Parents regularly have one or two kids on their bike, using rear seats, front seats, front carriers, or standing behind them on the hubs of the back wheel. And really, nobody wears a helmet! It really goes to show how culturally conditioned our extreme safety consciousness is. In the US, you would be thought of as a bad parent if you let your kids ride without helmets. Yet in Holland, an advanced, progressive, first world country if there ever was one, nobody does and it's just fine. It's all about perspective.

Non-motorized push scooters are extremely popular in Geneva, even for adults, for commuting. But you didn't see ANY scooters in Amsterdam. Just bikes.

People in Amsterdam were so friendly.  Anyone that I asked for directions (in English, no less, I didn't even learn how to say "excuse me" in Dutch) answered cheerfully and extensively, in English, and they all ended with something along the lines of "have a great holiday in Amsterdam". Very impressive.  Also we were on the tram one day, and a group of people of different ages that didn't seem like they started out knowing one another started chatting, and passed around a photo and had a good old time before they got off, separately.   Okay, maybe I'm idealizing a bit, but people really seemed cheerful.

About garbage and litter in the street - I would say it's about the same as Geneva. The graffiti wasn't nearly as bad as in here in Geneva, though.

Geneva is nice enough, but after visiting Amsterdam, I was really wishing that our stay in Europe could have taken place there.  Luckily I found that the weather in Amsterdam is about like Seattle - lots of rain and gloom.  So I didn't feel quite so bad about it.   Although the weather here in Geneva right now is nowhere near as nice and sunny as it was in March - that was apparently an anomaly.

So...what did we do?  Lots of kid-focused stuff, really.  Along with just walking around the canals, here's where we went:

Artis - the zoo, we went here Easter Sunday and had to wait about 45 minutes to get in because it was so popular.  The kids favorite part was a cool playground with a great slide.  At the chimpanzee house we had a long talk with a lady who was very knowledgeable about chimps.  The chimpanzees were supposed to all be sterilized, but one of them had a baby which unfortunately died a few days after it was born.  The mother chimp apparently carried it around for a few days, but when we went there, it was laying on the floor.  A little macabre.

TunFun  - a huge indoor playground that's actually a converted overpass, complete with concrete pillars supporting old highways, and old traffic lights.  They had one slide which included a sheer drop of about 5 feet. Kenny, after some initial hesitation, ended up loving it and going on it dozens and dozens of times.  Lots of trampolines, huge climbing area, ball pits, inflatables, etc.

We weren't planning on spending the day there, as a matter of fact we started to leave after a few hours, but after we'd packed up and walked out to the outdoors, we saw that it was pouring.  So our plan to walk around the canals was not that enticing, and we decided to just stay there.

Pancake Cruise - this was a fun evening activity, incorporating a cruise along the waterways (not the canals) and a Dutch pancake buffet. The boat had a little ball pit downstairs.  Also we met a Moroccan woman with two boys who was very friendly, she's a real estate agent living in Amsterdam.  Lots of cool-looking modern architecture along the waterfront.

Nemo - a science and technology museum for kids.  The kids liked the bubble building section the best.

Canal cruise - the standard tourist canal cruise.  Nice and relaxing, the kids played on our phones the entire time.  Trying to get them to be interested in seeing the sights is a losing battle.

The main library - interesting modern building with a good kids section.  There was a fascinating exhibit called the Mouse Mansion made by artist and author Karina Shaapman.  She wrote a book to go along with it (actually I guess she built the Mouse Mansion to go with the book!) We spent a long time there going through the book that is set in the mouse village, trying to find the room from each page.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

First impressions in Amsterdam

We just arrived here today via an Easyjet flight from Geneva.  First impressions:

  • Wow!  Everybody is really tall here.  I'm not the tallest woman around, like I am in most places
  • There's a lot of bikes!  There's massive bike parking lots all over the place, bike lanes everywhere.  It's a bikers heaven.  Most streets seem to have separate bike lanes, and not just a line painted on the street, but rather real separate lanes.

We went to an Indonesian place for dinner, and Eric had the traditional Indonesian rijsttafel.  It's basically rice, with all kinds of curry, etc, as toppings.  He had about a dozen tiny little dishes of toppings.  Not an inexpensive meal, but it was good.  The kids and I shared some chicken satay.   We were eating in a tiny room, upstairs, along with one couple.  The couple kind of sounded like they were on their first date, maybe, but something was a little off...far too much talk about previous relationships.  Anyway, it was interesting to listen to.  The woman had been a "living statue" in a previous job.

We're in a hotel called the Hotel de Munck, in central Amsterdam, build in the 1700s.  It wasn't my first, second, third, or fourth choice (things were really booked up, maybe because it's tulip time), and it's a little run down, but I'll say this for them - they have very fast wireless internet.  It's a good thing, because I haven't done that much planning, so I'll need to be doing that here.

The stairs are extremely steep and narrow - apparently it's typical for this type of house.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I love Fribourg

We took a really enjoyable day trip to Fribourg today.  Friboug is an old medieval town on the border of French and German speaking part of Switzerland.  It used to be more evenly spit, but right now it's only about 20% German speaking.  The train ride takes about 80 minutes, through beautiful scenery, with old chateaus to the left and right. Train rides work out quite well with the kids - they alternate playing on the ipad, they can go to the bathroom if they need to, and we have snacks. I brought my kindle with, after having downloaded some books from the library, and also played some games on my phone.

Once in Fribourg, we got off to rough start. I had done some research online, but mostly had a list of things I wanted to ask at the tourist office. The tourist office was poorly marked from the train station, so we walked down one street, up another, until finally we found it - and it was closed on Sunday, anyway. So, back to the train station.  There was a placard there with a suggested walking tour, so we took a photo of it, and started walking. I thought we'd to a little side trip to a famous fountain on the way, but what looked like something close by was actually quite far down a hill that we'd have to climb up again, so we retreated, followed by a drunk guy shouting at us. Eric had goose bumps because he'd brought only his fleece vest instead of a jacket (it's been so warm recently). But when we arrived, it was chilly and windy, and the sun was behind clouds.  The kids were even a little chilly in their insulated jackets.

Then things started looking up.  Thankfully the sun came out and warmed us all up, and we discovered that the walking path was fairly well marked and went through the really interesting old medieval section of town. And there were very few tourists, practically none. I don't know why that is, it's certainly very picturesque and worth visiting.

We had lunch at a restaurant just over this bridge.  It was a very local place, not touristy at all - not that there were any tourists around.  I had some very oily Rostli (kind of like hash browns) with cheese and eggs. I asked the waiter for tap water, which is not commonly done here.  He hesitated for a moment, but brought some.  He spoke German, so I was able to practice that a bit.

Moments after taking this picture, Peter burst out crying.  We peppered him with questions that he didn't answer - did the goat bite you, did it butt your hand, etc.  We couldn't figure out what happened!  It turned out that the fence is actually electrified, in a weird way - the plastic woven cord has tiny wires in it, and Peter happened to touch one of them.

I just read in the paper - this beautiful, sunny, warm weather is not normal.  Apparently it's the sunniest March on record since 1953.